For what is likely the first time ever, a group of nontheists have founded a citywide Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day of Service.
Before this year the city of Flagstaff, Arizona did not have a coordinated day of community service on MLK Day. But Brian Wallace, a 37-year-old power engineer and Chair of the Flagstaff Freethinkers board, decided to change that.
Designated as a national day of service by Congress in 1994, MLK Day is the only federal holiday dedicated to community service. On the third Monday of January of every year since, people across the United Stated have “work[ed] together to provide solutions to our most pressing national problems.”
When it comes to MLK Day, Arizona has a controversial history—it was one of the last states to recognize the federal holiday, triggering a boycott that began in 1987 and lasted until 1992.
Organizers in Flagstaff predict a large turnout for Monday’s service projects—they have over 100 pre-registered participants, and predict that number could double before Monday. This would be significant for any first-time citywide service event in a city of Flagstaff’s size—per the 2012 census it has a population of just under 68,000—but it is all the more notable considering the lead organizers are atheists and agnostics.
The effort to create Flagstaff’s first MLK Day of Service began last year when Wallace and the Flagstaff Freethinkers—a community organization for local atheists, agnostics, and Humanists founded in 2011—were inspired by Dr. King’s conviction that “life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
A vital early supporter of their plan to organize an event was Coral Evans, the Vice Mayor of Flagstaff.
“I reached out to [Evans], an inspirational community leader and civil rights advocate,” said Wallace. “She isn’t a nontheist but she sees us as doing positive things in town and was really excited about the project.”
With Evans’ support and financial assistance from the Beyond Belief Network, the Flagstaff Freethinkers contacted organizations including the Northern Arizona Interfaith Council (NAIC)—the Flagstaff Freethinkers have been active members since last year—and local religious congregations and communities, as well as civic organizations and student groups such as Northern Arizona University’s Black Student Union.
“We organized a meeting with reps from about seven groups to start with and established a vision for the event,” Wallace said. “We encouraged them to bring more [groups] in and now there are well over a dozen participating organizations and we have eleven projects [planned] for the day.”
Given that Dr. King was a Christian reverend, it has come as a surprise to some that a group of nontheists led the charge to establish this event. But Dr. King worked alongside a diverse group of people of all faiths and none. In fact, A. Philip Randolph—an activist and key ally to Dr. King in the American civil rights movement—was an atheist who signed the second edition of the Humanist Manifesto.
In that spirit, the Flagstaff Freethinkers assembled a diverse interfaith coalition. And while some may find the idea of a group of atheists, agnostics, and Humanists organizing an interfaith alliance strange, Wallace sees it as in line with Dr. King’s vision.
“The interfaith nature of this is an outgrowth of the fact that we wanted to bring people together to feel connected to one another, united by an inspirational idea and purpose [and a] focus on social and economic justice. That was the idea that resonated with the legacy of Dr. King,” Wallace said.
Wallace is pleased that many local religious communities were eager to work with the Flagstaff Freethinkers.
“Not everyone that was working with us understood who we are, but we weren’t shy about it either,” said Wallace. “I think most of the groups just saw the value of trying to bring the broader community together around common values and doing good work.”
“Flagstaff Freethinkers have reminded [us] that secular communities can also be powerful moral communities that can play a ‘prophetic’ role in our society,” said Leah Mundell, leader of the Religious School at Heichal Baoranim synagogue and Director of Organizing for NAIC. “We were thrilled that the Flagstaff Freethinkers took the initiative in organizing the MLK Day of Service to give our congregation the chance to join with the wider community in making Flagstaff a better place.”
This event is just the latest example of atheism’s rising visibility in Arizona. Last year Arizona Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, acknowledged his atheism during a “secular invocation” he offered at the Arizona statehouse. During his remarks, Rep. Mendez encouraged his colleagues to “celebrate our shared humanness”—a sentiment that certainly resonates with the efforts in Flagstaff.
“Atheists, Humanists, agnostics—we are emotionally fed by the work we do [to] help those we see as part of our tribe,” said Wallace. “Hopefully [our conception] of that tribe [is] as broadly inclusive as possible.”
Dr. King—who once described humanity as “black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace”—would surely agree.
To learn more about Flagstaff’s MLK Day of Service, visit their website.